Thank heavens for emergency rooms. But sometimes the first aid measures taken on the scene before a patient arrives at the hospital can make all the difference, especially if the ER is crowded. (On average you'll wait 45 minutes before seeing a doctor, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and longer in urban centers.)
We asked two experts, Dr. Tom Scaletta, the outgoing president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, and Denise King, president of the Emergency Nurses Association, to identify the 10 most common first aid mistakes—and what you should do instead.
1. Cut finger. It's surprisingly easy for a person to amputate part of a finger—for instance, while chopping vegetables or using an electric saw.
Don't try to preserve the loose part by placing it directly on ice.
Do wrap the severed part in damp gauze (saline would be ideal for wetting the cloth), place it in a watertight bag and place the bag on ice. Then be sure to bring the bag and ice to the emergency room. The patient will be going into surgery, so he's best off with an empty stomach. As for the wound on the hand or body, apply ice to reduce swelling and cover it with a clean, dry cloth.
2. Knocked-out tooth.
Don't scrub the tooth hard even if it's dirty (a gentle rinse is OK)
Do put the tooth in milk and go straight to the ER; there's a chance the tooth could be reimplanted.
Don't apply ice or butter or any other type of grease to burns. Also, don't cover a burn with a towel or blanket, because loose fibers might stick to the skin. When dealing with a serious burn, be careful not to break any blisters or pull off clothing stuck to the skin.
Do wash and apply antibiotic ointment to mild burns. Head to the hospital for any burns to the eyes, mouth, or genital areas, even if mild; any burn that covers an area larger than your hand; and any burn that causes blisters or is followed by a fever.
4. Electrical burns.
Don't fail to get medical attention for a jolt of electricity (for instance, from lightning, a power line, or home electrical cords), even if no damage is evident. An electrical burn can cause invisible (and serious) injury deeper inside the body. More than 500 Americans die every year from electrical burns.
Do go to the ER immediately.
5. Sprained ankle.
Don't use a heating pad.
Do treat a sprain with ice. Go to the ER if it is very painful to bear weight. You might have a fracture.
Don't lean back. And after the bleeding has stopped, don't blow your nose or bend over.
Do sit upright and lean forward and pinch your nose steadily (just below the nasal bone) for five to 10 minutes. If the bleeding persists for 15 minutes (or if you think you are swallowing a lot of blood) go to the ER.
Don't use tourniquets! You could cause permanent tissue damage.
Do apply steady pressure to the wound with a clean towel or gauze pack and wrap the wound securely. Go to the ER if the bleeding doesn't stop, or if the wound is gaping or caused by an animal bite. To help prevent shock, keep the victim warm.
8. Ingestion of poison.
Don't induce vomiting or use Ipecac syrup (unless instructed to do so by emergency personnel).
Do call poison control, and bring the ingested substance with its container to the ER.
9. Being impaled.
Don't remove the object; you could cause further damage or increase the risk of bleeding.
Do stabilize the object, if possible, and go to the ER.
Don't put anything in the victim's mouth.
Do lay the victim on the ground if possible in an open space and roll the victim onto his or her side. Call 911.
And when else should you call 911? Whenever you see or experience chest pain, fainting, confusion, uncontrollable bleeding or shortness of breath. The medics can get to work on arrival.